The Roots of Bonnaroo 2016: Day 4 Recap
The sun has set on the final day of the 2016 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and the fans and bands are packing their tents to head home, wherever that may be. As is typically the case on Sunday at Bonnaroo, there was plenty of roots-oriented music to go around, with The Bluegrass Situation taking over That Tent for the day and acts like Jason Isbell, Charles Bradley, and Cymande performing elsewhere.
The Headliner: Dead & Company
When Bonnaroo started in 2002, it was primarily a jam band festival. Fast forward to 2016 and Bonnaroo looks very different but has maintained some connection to its jam roots throughout. This year's closing headliner, Dead & Company, draws an almost direct line back to 2003, when The Dead closed out the festival's second year. Made up of Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann, 3 of the 4 surviving members of jam's godfathers, The Grateful Dead, Dead & Company is rounded out by guitarist and vocalist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. Any attempt to review the show itself would be futile. Jam is either something people love or they hate. If you love jam, then Dead & Company is everything you probably loved about The Grateful Dead. The outstanding musicianship, the improvisation, the extended solos, they're all there. If you hate jam, probably for the same reasons the jam lovers enjoy it, then the sprawling 4 hour set, 10-15 minute songs, and prolonged solos are all still there in spades.
Roots Performance of the Day: The Bluegrass Situation Superjam
I try to go into every festival I cover with an open mind. Past experiences give me some idea of which bands are likely to bubble up to the top of my favorites list, but I endeavor to give all sets a fair shot. Going into Bonnaroo 2016, I didn't see any show that could likely topple Jason Isbell from atop the Best of Sunday heap. But the Bluegrass Situation's Superjam did just that. That's no knock on Isbell's show, which I will detail later, but instead a tribute to the outstanding nature of this year's Superjam. The addition of Watkins Family Hour as co-curators was a good one and it paid dividends. The highlights of this set, which included the likes of Langhorne Slim, Sam Bush, and Steep Canyon Rangers, are to numerous to list out in full, so I'll focus on the two brightest spots. The first was a duet between Amanda Shires and Ed Helms on John Prine and Iris Dement's “In Spite of Ourselves.” It's a song that doesn't take itself seriously and Shires and Helms struck the right notes. For the few rows close enough to peek side stage, they got the added bonus of watching Amanda's husband Jason Isbell and his infant dance partner waltz around the wings while they watched mommy work. The second highlight came when Lee Ann Womack, who has fully blossomed into her Americana career pivot, joined Sean and Sara Watkins for a showstopper rendition of Fleetwood Mac's “Lies.” Any good Fleetwood Mac cover lives and dies by the harmonies and Womack and the Watkins did McVie, Nicks, and Buckingham proud.
For the first time, the Bluegrass Situation Superjam directly conflicted with the headliner, but it didn't seem to draw the crowd away at all as the tent was packed. With Bonnaroo's regular Saturday Superjams moving toward more curated and themed affairs, the Bluegrass Situation Superjam has taken over the role of being the show at Bonnaroo where anyone might show up and anything might happen.
Best of the Rest
On a Sunday so packed with roots options I was forced to choose in several cases, there were no non-roots artists I saw, so we'll go right into the rest of the day. Jason Isbell, after having played Which Stage in 2013 graduated to the What Stage this year and drew a sizable crowd considering the fact that What is unshaded, making daytime sets a chore. Isbell and his longtime band The 400 Unit, including Amanda Shires on fiddle, ripped through an hour of songs pulled from across his solo and Drive-By Truckers works. With the shortened time to work in, Isbell wasn't able to do as much crowd banter as his usual show, but he did work in a mention of the mass shooting in Florida, starting his set with “It's a happy day here on stage, but it's not a happy day everywhere today” before dedicating “Traveling Alone” from Southeastern to the people of Florida. Isbell later referenced how sobriety has changed his outlook on some of his works, noting that performing his song “Codeine” is now “fun for me, not sad like it used to be.”
Before Isbell on the main stage was Daptone Records revivalist Charles Bradley. Bradley grew up imitating James Brown and his stage demeanor retains much of that nod to the Godfather of Soul. Backed up by an on-fire horn section, Bradley's frenetic dance songs were just what the doctor ordered to kick of a sweltering final day of Bonnaroo.
In the Bluegrass Situation Tent, the day began with a short half hour set from John Moreland. With just a chair and an acoustic guitar, the full focus of Moreland's set was all in the lyrics and in Moreland's superb guitar work. Following Moreland was the stage's co-curator, Sara Watkins. With a new album to promote, Watkins pulled heavily from the forthcoming Young in All the Wrong Ways and brought up Superjam participants The Secret Sisters to harmonize with her on a couple of songs.
The final show before the Superjam was mandolin legend Sam Bush. It's fitting that Bush would anchor the Bluegrass Situation's stage because Bush's lifelong breaking of genre barriers, first with Newgrass Revival and later as a solo artist, is in large part responsible for many facets of the Americana movement. Bush never looks like he's quite in control of his body in concert, running and jerking around stage, all while showing off some of the best acoustic and electric mandolin skills in the world. The high point of the set was a piano-less “Great Balls of Fire” that had no business working but did in Bush's deft hands.
Only at Bonnaroo Moment of the Day
Sunday marked the close of Bonnaroo so, for the mass of fans exiting Centeroo, it would be their last walk under the arch for 2016. For reasons I have never been told, this exit is accompanied each year by a mass sing-along of comedic rapper Biz Markie's '80s novelty hit “Just a Friend.” The song has no relation to Bonnaroo or to leaving something you enjoy, but for some reason every year a chorus of “You! You got what I need!” will begin and suddenly 60,000 people are doing off key renditions of a one hit wonder from 1989. In past years, fans would sing the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club, which I always interpreted as an homage to the last scene of Full Metal Jacket. But whatever the reason for the Biz Markie karaoke, it just doesn't feel like Bonnaroo is over until it's sung.